Meta-Commentary: A Response to Ben A. Barres' Commentary "Does Gender Matter?"

published in Nature 442, 133-136(13 July 2006) | doi:10.1038/442133a; online 12 July 2006



by Alice Andrews



I agree with Barres. But I also agree with Pinker.


 How can this be?


Many of us get uncomfortable with fuzzy unreconciliation because when we're in this place ourselves, it feels awful. We are also distrustful of such a position — we want to know where a person stands — are they in the in-group or out-group? If you are sitting on the fence, or worse, enjoying fruits on one side of the fence and going through the gate and enjoying them on the other side too, well then, you really can't be trusted. I think that's fair to say, actually, from a practical standpoint. But we are all often in these states at one time or another; and through a dialectical process we try to reconcile the opposing positions. I think Colin Talbot, who wrote The Paradoxical Primate (I reviewed it, see Metapsychology Online) might call this fuzzy state a paradoxical state. As we know, this culture’s good at ‘either-or’ but not so good at ‘both-and’ when dealing with dichotomies. 


Sometimes we’re lucky enough to go through a Hegelian triadic dialectical process, where we pass through thesis to antithesis to synthesis. It's a very male and positivist thing to want to do — and I understand it, as well as I do wanting to stay in the land of abeyance, in the land of the murky, in the land of the unsure; that fairly feminine land of making no claims, wielding no power, trying to make nice with everyone, trying to have it all, wanting to cooperate. I'm very much of the belief that it's my nature that I'm like this, but I know that I can learn to go against this natural tendency. And I try sometimes. And will here.


As an open-minded and free-speech loving evolutionary feminist, I was initially unhappy with the way Summers was handled; and if memory serves, my sympathetic 'voice' was drowned out by his detractors. I still think he was treated unfairly. However, I happen to love this commentary by Ben Barres, whose experiences and advice on how to deal with women's under-representation in math and science, rang true for me. 


Some think Barres has mischaracterized the issue; I think he chooses to focus on what is important. Well, wait. One of the problems with trying to make an absolutist point is that sometimes a smaller issue gets subsumed by the larger one, for one reason or another.


Barres did a bit of mischaracterizing here:

 "I will refer to this view that women are not advancing because of innate inability rather than [my itals] because of bias or other factors as the Larry Summers Hypothesis."


In fact, Summers was very careful to state that it was due to three factors. He never said "rather than," in fact, the innate argument was his second most important reason. Of course, Barres did this heuristically, and I don’t fault him for it. Though perhaps I should.


Here's the problem with these debates: Over and over, we keep repeating the same thing: The environmentalists are careful to point out that biology plays a role in determining abilities etc, and the same thing with the nativists, mutatis mutandis.


But in the end, it's what one leans toward and what one's focus is on; it's what one thinks is, to quote a sociologist colleague of mine, "so much more important."


I do think that that there are real sex-differences when it comes to interests, and I also tend to think there's quite a lot of truth in Harvey Mansfield's point, as summarized by Barres in his commentary, "that women don't like to compete and are risk adverse [sic], compared to men." (Women, on average, are probably by nature, more emotional, too  —  so I disagree with Barres’ fundamental disagreement with that as well.) But finally, ultimately, everything comes down to emphasis.


Though I am not a social constructionist, I know psychology is not a hard science: It doesn't matter how many experiments you do, as far as I'm concerned, the knowledge generated will always be questionable (see my essay "Being Brave"). Though it is basically impossible to change certain propensities and proclivities and aptitudes which have been shaped by natural and sexual selection, we can change our behavior, our language, our policies, our culture. Our evolved nature and our evolved psychological mechanisms indeed make us much of who we are; to deny certain truths about our deep parts is just as damaging as denying that there is sexism, stereotyping, discrimination, ad infinitum. So how to reconcile this?


The reasons against doing studies or reporting findings that say that women, due to nature, on average, and/or at the top 5%, are not as good as men at math, etc., a program often espoused by sociologists and others, are clear and obvious and good: avoiding ‘stereotype threat’ and perhaps getting more women into the fields of math and science, providing women a better chance, changing the way people see women, and therefore the way they treat them — maybe.


But what, if any, would the advantage be to not shutting up?


Here’s a possible advantage, often not sung; it’s an example of how a social role theory or social constructionist view of a person can be debilitating, not liberating:


A man I was dating years ago didn't believe me when I explained that I was basically disabled at rotating objects around in my head when he was talking about a car. He explained to me that it was because I wasn’t interested in cars and that my disinterest was socialized; and therefore there was nothing innate about my inability to do this task he was asking me to do, but rather, it was my lack of will to do it. That it was all there just waiting to be developed. This infuriated me. How did he know what I could do? My brain can do lots of interesting things that other brains I’ve known can't do. (Ex: I can recognize a person from-behind a block away when I haven't seen them for years.) We can develop capacities to some degree, but there is a threshold and limit. And perhaps with practice I could get a bit better, I don’t doubt that.


But when people accept and value us for what we can do naturally, rather than tell us that, 'well, you could do this if only you had been socialized to', when we actually see other people who have had the same socialization who can do it, it's upsetting. Indeed, how to explain the fact that I have female cohorts, women who are my age (40), American, white, etc., who, in fact, grew up in social environments that were much less progressive and supportive than the one I grew up in, who are able to rotate images around in their head just fine — who have a certain cognitive ability that I don't have much of? Why didn't their social environment stunt them? Why didn't my social environment enrich me (in that domain)?  To completely deny biology here is tantamount to saying something is deficient in my will or character or my ineffable personhood, and that stinks.



 I know sociologists and others would like to see EPs and other social scientists doing work in the field of biological/nativist studies directing their energies elsewhere. But is this truly necessary if one has a decent social agenda in mind?


I don't think we need to stop doing research — or shut up —  if we proceed to do the four things Barres recommends we do in his Take Action section [“enhance leadership diversity in academic and scientific institutions"; be more conscious about faculty moms and support them; speak out about sexism etc when you see it; "enhance fairness in competitive selection processes"; and mentor and help boost confidence in young women] and proceed smartly and cautiously.


Social structures have historically changed via mass bloodshed. But since I’m not a Trotskyist (like my parents were when I was growing up), I do like the sociological idea that we can change social relations by just rearranging structures. But it's much more complicated than that. Even the 2nd-wave women's movement some 30-plus years ago had many, many variables going for it, some of it having everything to do with biology and science. The pill was significant in the struggle. But so were so many other things: All the struggles and social victories that came before, demonstrations, some violence, books, memes, a reeducation of the masses.


It takes many factors to change social structures and I think that so many people in this culture feel the truth of nature, that to promote that nature isn't a big factor or to not want to study it for its benefits seems defeatist. We are inevitably going to look at this stuff, so let's do it responsibly, ethically and actually use it for some good — use the knowledge to change the social structure. The meme that our brains evolved in the Pleistocene era; that our brains spent 99% of its time evolving in hunter-gatherer bands/cooperative communities of 40-200 is a great and useful meme. It should be spread and spread to everyone in this country. That particular meme reinforces a kind of communitarian ideology that with time could get people behind certain kinds of policy. But to expect to just change social structures through policy without a public that doesn't support it, doesn't seem tenable to me.


Here’s the possible synthesis I spoke of at the beginning. It may sound reactionary to some, novel and revolutionary to others, and the rest may be somewhere on the fence about it. We need (as Nietzsche would have called it) a revaluation of all values.


We all look at this issue through the dominant ideology’s lens, because that’s the only lens in town. Even the kind social-constructionist lens could be viewed as quasi-paternalistic, in that it perpetuates male values — math and science laden with value, as opposed to other things. So what if we, in addition to trying to get a couple more women tenure-track positions at Harvard teaching engineering, fought a deep battle of what is valued and valuable? 


What is inherent in the arguments against Summer's position is that those are the things that women should be striving for and 'why can't many of them attain it?' I do agree with Summer's three possible reasons (social roles/life-history, biology (which is a result of the environment, too!), and discrimination); but where's the big hoopla over giving school teachers who perform an incredibly valuable and socially productive function tons and tons of money?  Why isn't that job high-status? The male-model is so hard not to use that this may seem preposterous. Of course Harvard engineers should get more money than teachers who nurture our children. Even I am thinking it as I write these very words. But if we made sure that only the very best taught our children, if teachers who taught our children had to have as much schooling and training, wouldn’t they deserve as much as an engineer? Why do we value abstract reasoning and science over nurturing and caring? We could this call this the Simon Baron-Cohen or Carol Gilligan hypothesis of meritocracy. And sure this sounds like it’s a right-wing or conservative program, a turn-the-clocks-back to, as Hilary would say, baking cookies. But of course it’s not. It's much more complicated.


I'm still in abeyance, though; this was merely an attempt to move beyond the opposites. At this moment, when we don't have a revaluation of all values, where men are more valued for their ways of being and knowing, and women are less valued for their ways, I want us to be very careful about what we tell our young women and girls. But I don't want researchers to stop doing biological etiology studies or looking for innate differences. We must make every effort, as researchers, reporters, professors, et al., to do good research, and to make sure to present information on these issues as roundly and critically — with all their nuanced complexities — as possible.




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